Drunken driving case stirs Mo. police after officer loses his legs


Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. 

With blaring sirens and flashing lights, a procession of 30 police cars from across the area headed down Market Street to Kiener Plaza on Sunday with a message for the judge who will sentence the drunken driver who maimed one of their own: Justice for city police Officer Matt Browning means a stiff sentence for the driver. Uniformed police officers flanked both sides of the stair rails leading down to the center of Kiener Plaza. All eyes focused on the young, athletic man holding an aluminum cane as he slowly made his way to the center of the crowd.

Browning's steps were jerky, his left leg kicked out awkwardly with each halting step. But, when he reached the bottom, the crowd exploded into cheers, a marching band banged on its drums, and cheerleaders waved their pompons.

"This is not just about me," Browning said to the crowd. "I'm going to be OK. Not all police officers are so lucky."

Browning lost both his lower legs last year when John Mittelbuscher, 30, of Manchester, crashed his pickup into a parked police car. The car pinned Browning, severing his legs.

Mittelbuscher pleaded guilty to two felony charges of second-degree assault.

Mike Boland, on the national board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, sees the sentencing on Friday as a test: The state will decide the value of Matt Browning's legs, he said. Browning said he plans to attend the sentencing and will make a victim impact statement. He feels anxious and scared about the outcome.

Often, juries and judges sympathize with the person who caused the accident, he said. People consider drunken driving "no big deal," and it's almost socially acceptable because so many people have driven themselves after having too much to drink.

"Until the punishment fits the crime, people are going to continue to think it's no big deal," he said. Rather than imaging yourself in the defendant's shoes, Browning urged others to consider themselves in the victims' place.

"How would you have felt if this had been you? .o.o. If it had been your little girl or your mother or father?"

Mittlebuscher could face up to 14 years in prison, although, Browning said that would be excessive. He wants him to be sentenced to five years, which means about 18 months in prison, Browning said. He hopes that would be enough of a deterrent to prevent Mittlebuscher from driving while intoxicated again.

David Browning, Matt's father, who also attended the rally, pointed out that his son's life will never be the same.

"I don't think it's asking too much for the judge to change this guy's life for a while."

One of the speakers, Travis Yates, an officer from Tulsa and advocate for police safety, said that in the past three decades, the number of officers killed on the roadways has increased 40 percent.

More officers are run over than shot, he said. Driving is the most dangerous part of the job, and he urged better training and reflective vests for officers and stricter sentences for drunken drivers.

Mark Albright, a St. Louis police officer, said he agrees wholeheartedly with stiffer sentencing.

"We get drunk driving arrests every night," he said. "They think, 'As long as I get home, it's OK.'"

asultan@post-dispatch.com e 314-340-8300

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